Calvin Theological Journal 19 (1984): 153-166.

  Copyright © 1984 by Calvin Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.








A point which has often arrested the attention of interpreters of the

Song of the Valiant Woman, which concludes the book of Proverbs, is

the relationship of the body of the poem, with its catalogue of the

down-to-earth exploits of the lady portrayed, to verse 30b, which

describes her as "the woman who fears Yahweh." The poem as a whole

describes such mundane and this-worldly activities, and the theme of

yir’at YHWH is so emphatically religious, that their juxtaposition

within the same tightly-knit poetic structure has often evoked com-

ment in the history of interpretation.

      The poles of the relationship in question are readily identified,

within the tradition of Christian theology, with the themes "nature"

grace." On the one hand we have the "natural" realm, the arena of

ordinary and everyday earthly activities and concerns; on the other

hand we have the "spiritual" realm, the domain of religion and wor-

ship is no secret that the relationship between nature and grace has

historically been conceived in fundamentally different ways, and that

the differing paradigms for construing that relationship correlate with

profoundly divergent Christian attitudes to the perennial questions of

Christ and culture, church and world, faith and reason.1 It is perhaps

legitimate to speak in this connection of different Christian worldviews.

      It will be the purpose of this essay to show how different world-

views, understood in the sense of traditional paradigms relating nature

grace, have influenced the history of the interpretation of Proverbs

31:10-31 from patristic times to the present. In this way I propose to

illustrate the more general point, too often neglected in biblical studies,

that one's basic stance on this fundamental religious issue is of decisive

significance in the exegesis and interpretation of the scriptures. On that

score there is no essential difference between early patristic and con-

temporary critical students of the Bible.

      For present purposes I will distinguish four such worldviews, recog-


     1See H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1951) for

typology of such attitudes.     





154                       CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


nizing, of course, that other classifications are possible and legitimate

as well.2 Roughly speaking, and at the risk of falling prey to all the

dangers of schematization, I propose to distinguish conceptions which

look upon grace as opposing, as completing, as flanking, and as restoring


      In the first view, salvation is essentially incompatible with the ordi-

nary world of created human life and provides a radical alternative to it.

In the context of modem Western Christendom, we find this world

view strongly represented in the Anabaptist tradition. The second one

is that of classical Roman Catholicism, which speaks of a natural and a

super-natural ordo, related in such a way that the latter "perfects" the

former, and the former is oriented to the latter. The third view, often

associated with Lutheranism, sees nature and grace (at least in the

present dispensation) as two realms alongside each other with little

intrinsic connection between them. The fourth world view, finally,

resists every distinction of realms between nature and grace and insists

that grace throughout means re-creation, an internal healing and re-

newal of perverted nature. In the modem West this view. has been

strong in the Calvinistic tradition.3

      To make a play on Latin prepositions, :we could say that these four

paradigms construe gratia as contra, as supra, as iuxta, or as intra

naturam. Each has been influential in the way in which the Song of

Proverbs 31 has been interpreted.

      It should be noted that in describing the four worldviews a variety of

expressions is used to refer to their basic categories. On the one hand

we speak of "nature," "the secular," "the natural," "the created world,”

and so on, and on the other of "grace," "the religious," "the spiritual,”

"supra-nature," etc. These cannot be said to be strictly synonymous,

nor, indeed, equally legitimate,- but they are comparable as various

designations of the basic terms of the classical "nature-grace" problem

That problem, dealing with the reality of both the sin-perverted created

order and the salvation provided in Jesus Christ, is basic to all Christian

thought, though its terms are construed in fundamentally different

ways. It is this single trans-paradigmatic reality which makes the


      2For example, Niebuhr, op. cit., distinguishes five paradigms. See also the fivefold

typology of my colleague James H. Olthuis, "Must the Church Become Secular?" in Out

Concern for the Church (Toronto: Wedge, 1970), p. 120.


        3My analysis owes a great deal to the work of the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck

(1854-1921). See J. Veenhof "Nature and Grace in Bavinck," (tr. A. Wolters), academic

paper dis"tnbuted by the Institute for Christian Studies, 229 College Street, Toronto, 0N

Canada M5T 1R4. This is a translation of a section in J. Veenhof, Revelatie en Inspir

(Amsterdam: Buijten en Schipperheijn, 1968).

            NATURE AND GRACE IN PROVERBS 31:10--31                  155


divergent categories of the various worldview paradigms comparable

in principle.



      The first perspective looks upon "the fear of the Lord" mentioned in

1:30 as basically incompatible with such everyday earthly activities as

spinning and weaving, planting and trading, as are listed in the body

of the poem. The religious and the secular simply cannot be mixed in

this way. Consequently, to retain the integrity of the Song, either the

one pole of the relationship must be spiritualized, or the other one

must be secularized.

      The first alternative is that followed, with very few exceptions, in

patristic and medieval exegesis. The domestic activities of the Valiant

Woman are spiritualized by making her an allegory of some other,

more clearly spiritual, reality. For roughly a thousand years there was a

widespread consensus on this point. Whereas the Jews generally took

the poem to refer to the Torah,4 Christians generally read it as a

description of the church. To be sure, a few Christian exegetes pro-

"posed alternative allegories (the woman as wisdoms or scripture6 or

the Virgin Mary7), but from Origen to the Reformation (and longer in

Catholic circles) the allegorical interpretation held virtually undisputed

sway. This' was very largely due to the authority of Augustine, who

devoted his Sermo 37 to the Song,8 and of his followers Gregory the

Great9 and the Venerable Bede,l0 reinforced in the thirteenth century


        4Alexander Altman, “Allegorical Interpretation," s.v. “Bible," Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol.

4: “Rabbinic aggadah and Midrash employed the allegorical method in an uninhibited

homiletic rather than in a systematic manner. ...The only exceptions are the allegorical

interpretations of Proverbs 31:1a-31 (the 'woman of valor' being understood as the Torah)

and of the Song of Songs" (cols. 895-96).

        5E.g., Adam of Perseigne (twelfth century), Mariale, in Migne, Patrologia Latina 211, col.


        6So Nicholas of Lyra under the influence of Rashi (see note 13).

        7E.g., Julien de Vezelay (twelfth century); see his Sermons, Sources Chretiennes

192-193 (Paris: Editions du Ced, 1972), vol. I, p. 90.

        8Augustinus, Sermones de Vetere Testamento, Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina, vol.

41 (Tumhout: Brepols, 1961), pp. 446-73.

        9Gregory has no commentary on Proverbs, but the allegorical interpretation of the

song of Proverbs 31 is found scattered throughout his writings; see for example his

Registrum Epistolarum 5. 12 and Homiliae in Hiezechihelem Prophetam 2. 18.

        10Beda Venerabilis, Super parabolas Salomonis allegorica expositio in Migne, Patrologia

Latina 91, cols. 937-1040; cf., 1039-52. Beda's commentary on the Song is also printed

under the name of Hrabanus Maurus in Migne, PL 111, cols. 780-93.

156                       CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


by a separate book-length commentary on the Song from the hand of

Albertus Magnus.11

      Two points should be noted about this allegorical consensus. First a

new spiritual meaning is given only to the "natural" activities of the

Valiant Woman (for example the treatment of flax in verse 13 refers to

the mortification of the flesh, the planting of a Vineyard in verse 16

symbolizes church-planting on the mission field, and so on12), but no

new sense is required for verse 30 since this already has a spiritual


      Second, we must not suppose that this allegorical interpretation was

taken to be merely one of the traditional four senses of this scriptural

passage, existing alongside an equally legitimate literal interpretation

The remarkable thing is that even those medieval exegetes who

stressed the literal sense (such as Rashi, Albertus Magnus, and Nich-

olas of Lyra) nevertheless interpreted the Valiant Woman as Scripture

or the church. As Nicholas of Lyra explains and approves, they held

that the figurative meaning here constitutes the literal sense:

In the last part of this book is placed the praise of the valiant woman

It is commonly interpreted by our teachers to refer to the church

which is metaphorically called the valiant woman, and her husband

Christ, whereas her sons and daughters are called the Christian

people of both sexes, the way it says in Judges 9: The trees went to

the bramble bush, etc. The literal sense does not refer to the physical

trees, but to Abimelech and the Shechemites who anointed him

king over them.13

Like the parable of the trees told by Jotham, the literal meaning of the


        11Liber de Muliere Forti, in Alberti Magni Opera Omnia, ed. A. Borgnet, vol. 18 (Paris:

Vives, 1893), pp. 1-242.

        12See J. Obersteiner, "Die Erklarung von Proverbia 31, 10-31, durch Beda den Ehrwür-

digen und Bruno von Asti," Theologisch-Praktische Quartalschrift 102 (1954):1-12.

        13Biblia latina cum postillis Nicolai de Lyra (1481), on Provo 31:10:" In ultima parte huius libri

ponitur commendatio fortis mulieris. Et exponitur communiter a doctoribus nostris de

ecclesia, quae metaphorice dicitur fortis mulier, et sponsus eius Christus; filii autem et

filiae populus Christianus in utroque sexu. Et dicunt quod iste est sensus litteralis, sicut

Iudicum IX dicitur: Ierunt ligna ad rhamnum, etc. Sensus litteralis non est de lingis

materialibus, sed de Abimelech, et Sichimitis eum super se regem inungentibus."  See

also the influential Postilla super totam Bibliam of the thirteenth-century Hugo of St. Cher

(printed in Basel, 1504) on Prov. 31:10: "A valiant woman, who will find, etc. Although this

could be expounded literally [ad litteram] in some way, according to the text in Ecclesiastes

7 [vs. 28]: 'one man among a thousand have I found; but a woman among all those have I

not found;' yet, since the commentators make no mention of a literal exposition (and we

have no wish to assume the office of prophet [vaticinari] at this point), we shall proceed

with a mystical [i.e., allegorical] interpretation."

          NATURE AND GRACE IN PROVERBS 31:10-31                   157



Song of Proverbs 31, in this view, is clearly allegorical.

      If an exegete shrinks back from spiritualizing the secular activities of

the Valiant Woman, and yet sees them as essentially incongruous as

works of "the woman who fears the Lord," he has the other option of

reversing the process, that is, of "secularizing" the sacred, in order to

bring it into line with the "worldly" tenor of the poem as a whole.

      Generally speaking, this is the approach taken by modem critical

scholars. Adducing the Septuagint translation of verse 30 in support of

their view, they argue that the original redaction of the Song spoke not

of a "woman who fears the Lord," but simply of an "intelligent

woman." Originally, in other words, the poem was "a secular song,"14

but the emendation of a "pious scribe" made it acceptable as part of the

sacred writings.

      To my knowledge, this hypothesis of a scribal pia fraus was first put

forward by C. H. Toy in 1902,15 and it has been widely accepted since.16

It is reflected also in a number of recent versions of the Bible, notably

the first edition of the Jerusalem Bible;7 which translates not the

Masoretic Hebrew text, but the postulated Vorlage.

      Again, there are two observations that are in order here. First, it will

not do to claim that the scholars who advocate this text-critical recon-

struction are themselves committed to a gratia contra naturam perspec-

tive. They may very well be agnostic on the issue. Instead they impute

such a perspective to ancient Israel, or at least to the redactors of the

text. Such an imputation, in turn, may well be influenced by experience

of the traditional worldview here under consideration.

      Second, it should be noted that the use to which the Septuagint is put

in this case is quite dubious. A number of scholars have pointed out

that the Septuagint can plausibly be taken to reflect the Masoretic text at


        14Curt Kuhl, Die Entstehung des Alten Testaments, 2d ed. (BemIMunich: Franke, 1960), p.

270, on Proverbs: "A secular song (31,10-31) forms the conclusion of the whole. .." (Kuhl's


        15Crawford H. Toy, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Proverbs, Interna-

tional Critical Commentary (New York: Scribner, 1902 [c. 1899]), pp. 548-50.

        16Cf. W. O. E. Oesterley, The Book of Proverbs (London: Methuen, 1929), p. 287; B.

Gemser, Spruche Salomos, Handbuch zum Alten Testament (Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr,

1937), p. 84; M. B. Crook, "The Marriageable Maiden of Provo 31:10--31," Journal of Near

Eastern Studies 13 (1954):137; R. B. Y. Scott, Proverbs-Ecclesiastes, The Anchor Bible (New

York: Doubleday, 1965), p. 186; H. P. Ruger, "Zum Text von Prv. 31,30," Die Welt des Orients

5 (1969):96-99; R. N. Whybray, The Book of Proverbs (Cambridge: Cambridge University

Press, 1972), p. 186.

        17The Masoretic reading is restored in the second (French) edition: La Bible de Jerusalem

(Paris: Editions du CerE, 1980). The English version follows the first edition.

158                       CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


this point.18 Moreover, quite apart from this, it is questionable whether

a different Hebrew Vorlage for the Septuagint should necessarily be

taken as evidence of a more authentic text.19 Decisions on such ques-

tions are notoriously subjective and not immune from the influence of

(imputed) worldview. ,

      We see, then, how strong has been the influence of the paradigm

which sees grace and nature as essentially in conflict with one another.

With respect to the interpretation of the Song of Proverbs 31, both the

consensus of the patristic and medieval church, and that of a good deal

of modem critical scholarship, seem to have been decisively affected by

this dualistic worldview.




      In the second world view, "nature" is no longer an exclusively nega-

tive category. Though still depreciated with respect to Hsupra-nature,"

it is now given a legitimate, if subordinate, place. Its legitimacy derives

from its being a preliminary to the spiritual, which therefore con-

stitutes its fulfillment or culmination. This is the paradigm of the duplex

ordo of official Roman Catholic teaching.

      Antoine Augustin Calmet, a Benedictine exegete of the eighteenth

century, gives clear expression to this perspective when he writes in his

commentary on verse 30:

To this point Solomon had hardly praised anything in his mother

but virtues which, though rare, did not transcend the natural order. He

established, as virtually exclusive evidence of her praiseworthy

qualities, the diligence, alertness, discipline, and efficient admin-

istration of the famous lady; here, however, he teaches that all these

qualities, indeed even her very beauty and her charms, are worth-

less and of no avail unless the fear of God, piety and true Wisdom are

added to them (my emphases).20


        18E.g., J. Becker, Gottesfurcht im Alten Testament (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute,

1965), p. 212; J. Haspecker, Gottesfurcht bei Jesus Sirach (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute,

1967), p. 93, n. 15.

        19See Ernst Wiirthwein, The Text of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B.

Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979), p. 64.

        20Augustinus Calmet, Commentarius Literalis in Omnes Libras Veteris Testamenti, Latinis

literis traditus a Joanne Dominico Mansi (WlfCeburgi: Rienner, 1792), vol. 6, p. 759:

Hactenus Salomon vix aliud in matre sua laudaverat quam virtutes, raras illas quidem,

sed quae naturalem ordinem non superarent. Argumentum laudum suarum ferme

unicum constituit industriam, vigilantiam, disciplinam, oeconomiam illustris foeminae:

roc autem docet hasce omnes laudes, quin et pulchritudinem ipsam et lepores, nisi Dei

timor, pietas, et vera Sapientia accedant, inanes esse et nihil. ...”

          NATURE AND GRACE IN PROVERBS 31:10-31                   159


Particularly telling here is the idea that the fear of the Lord must "be

added" (accedere) in order to give value to the naturalis ordo. The spir-

itual is a kind of adjunct which elevates the status of the natural.

      In the twentieth century this perspective comes through clearly in a

popular book written by Michael von Faulhaber, a German cardinal

trained in Old Testament studies. Commenting on Proverbs 31:30, he

writes: article

The pearl of womenhas not forgotten the one thing needful amid all

the Martha-cares of her busy life, but by her fear of God she has set

the crown on all her life's work.21

Here the "fear of God" and "her life's work," correlated with "the one

thing needful" and "Martha-cares" (an allusion to the story in Luke

10:38-42), are clearly distinguished, and the former is conceived as

crown in relation to the latter, a fitting image of the hierarchical subor-

dination of the natural order.

      Because this world view makes such a clear distinction between the

natural and the spiritual, it also lends itself to a combination with the

critical view of the text mentioned under Section I above. We find such

a combination, for example, in the article on Proverbs in the New

Catholic Encyclopedia by W. G. Heidt:

Apart from 31:30b, which could possibly be a later scribal modifica-

tion, the virtues attributed to the ideal wife are wholly in the natural

order: she seemingly has no other purpose than laboring for hus-

band and household. However, these passages may be a final exam-

ple of how secular compositions were taken over by the wisdom

editors and spiritualized by being immersed in the wisdom context,

which oriented all human endeavor toward God. Verse 30b, then,

would be an authentic expression of the sacred author's mind and

purpose. 22

It is especially expressions like "the natural order," "secular composi-

tions," "spiritualized," and "sacred author," which reveal the structure

of a nature/supra-nature framework, here ingeniously interwoven

with a conjecture of redaction criticism. The "scribal modification," in

this view, does not bring about the spiritualization (as in Paradigm 1) but

expresses a spiritualization which has already taken place by being

"immersed in the wisdom context." The insertion of the poem into the

spiritual order, therefore, is here more gradual and does not involve

outright falsification. Grace is the culmination of nature.


        21Michael von Faulhaber, The Women of the Bible (Westminster, MD: Newman, 1938), p.


        22New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw-HilI, 1967), vol. 11, p. 916.

160                       CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL




      Whereas the first paradigm has been most influential in the history

of interpreting the Song of the Valiant Woman, and the second has had

the greatest institutional authority, the third has perhaps had the

smallest impact, at least is published commentaries. Moreover, it is

closely akin to the second worldview in that it gives a separate and

legitimate province to both the natural and the spiritual and could

therefore (for some purposes) be classed with it.

      I devote a distinct section to it here for two reasons: because as

worldview it does have a distinctive structure which marks it off from

the classical Roman Catholic view (notably the absence of hierarchical

subordination), and because Luther has supplied us with a particularly

striking quote which gives apt expression to this kind of two-realm


      It must be remembered that it was probably Luther, or else (under his

influence) Melanchthon,23 who first broke the spell of the allegorical

interpretation of the Song of the Valiant Woman. This must undoubt-

edly be understood in the context of the overall revalidation of natural

life in the Reformation and particularly of Luther's doctrine of Beruf or

vocation. This is clearly evident in Melanchthon's commentaries on the

Song. 24

      Luther did, however, maintain a clear duality between a natural

realm and a spiritual realm. This comes out plainly in a note which he

jotted down in the margin of his translation of Proverbs 31:30:

That is to say, a woman can live with a man honourably and piously

and can with a good conscience be a housewife, but she must also

in addition and next. to this, fear God, have faith and pray.25


        23See his Nova Scholia in Proverbia Salomonis (1529), reprinted in Melanchthons Werke in

Auswahl, vol. 4 (Giitersloh: Mohn, 1963), ed. P. F. Barton, p.;463, as well as his Explicatio

Proverbiorum Salomonis (1555), found in Philippi Melancthon!s Opera quae Supersunt Omia'

ed. C. G. Bretschneider, vol. 14 (Halle: Schwetschke, 1847), col. 86 (“But this whole

passage must be understood simply, without allegory, as the mirror of an honorable


        24The Nova Scholia (1529) twice speak of woman's vocatio in commenting on the Song

and the later Explicatio (1555) similarly states that in it Uthe chief virtues and duties of her

calling are listed" (col. 86).

        25Martin Luthers Werke, Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Die Deutsche Bibel, Band 10 (Weimer:

Böhlau, 1957), p. 103: “Das ist, Eine fraw kan bey einem Manne ehrlich und göttlich

wonen, und mit gutem gewissen Hausfraw sein, Sol aber dariiber und dameben Gott

fürchten, glauben und beten." This handwritten note was first printed in the second 1543

edition of Luther's Bible translation. For its earlier history, see op. cit., Band 4, pp. xxxiii

and 29.

            NATURE AND GRACE IN PROVERBS 31:10-31                   161


The Song's reference to the fear of the Lord, in other words, reminds us

that while it is perfectly legitimate to be engaged in the worldly realm,

there is another realm as well, distinct from the former and next to it

(darneben) where the fear of the Lord, faith, and prayer have their place.

Nature is not subordinate to grace, but neither does it have any intrinsic

connection with it.

      The same perspective is reflected in Melanchthon's Explicatio Prover-

biorum Salomonis of 1555 in which the Song is analyzed in terms of two

kinds of virtues: those' summarized in verse 30 (related to the first table

of the Decalogue) and those listed in the body of the poem (related to

the second table). The two kinds, once distinguished, are simply listed

in juxtaposition to each other.

      The third part [of the chapter] is a song about the virtues of an

honorable mother of a household. Now as for all people the Deca-

logue must be the rule of life, so let the virtues in this panegyric be

referred severally to the Decalogue. And the saying in this passage:

(The woman who fears God shall be praised,' belongs to the first


      By fear, however, we must understand all true worship, the true

acknowledgement of God, fear, faith, prayer, love of God, and other

associated virtues. ...

      Next are listed the remaining virtues: chastity in marriage, love for

her husband without crankiness, diligence in all the tasks about the

house, thriftiness, frugality. ...26

In Melanchthon's view the virtues enjoined by the first table of the

Decalogue seem to be relatively detachable from those commanded in

The second table.




      The fourth wordview is distinct from the first three in that it rejects

any division of nature and grace into separate realms. In this view the

spiritual penetrates into the natural, transforming it from within. Be-

cause of this, it has a more positive view of nature (the good creation)

than any of the others since grace is here seen to serve its restoration.


        26Opera, ed. Bretschneider, vol. 14, cols. 85--86: NTertia pars carmen est de virtutibus

honestaeMatrisfamilias. Ut autem singulis hominibus vitae regula esse debet Decalogus,

ita in hac laudatione distribuantur virtutes in Decalogum, et ad primam tabulam pertinet

dictum hoc loco, Mulier timens Deum, laudabitur.

autem intelligatur torus verus cultus, vera Dei agnitio, Timor, Fides, Invocatio,

dilectio Dei, et aliae coniunctae virtutes. ...

Deinde recitantur caeterae virtutes. Castitas coniugalis, amor erga maritum sine

morositate sedulitas in omnibus laboribus oeconomicis, Parsimonia, Frugalitas. ...”

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      Applied to the Song of Proverbs 31, this paradigm fosters an inter­pre-

tation which looks upon the fear of the Lord as integral to the poem

as a whole. Religion is not restricted to verse 30, but pervades the whole.

      Historically, this interpretation has often been associated with inter-

­preters of the Calvinist tradition. A good example is the note on the Song

which is given by J. F. Ostervald, a Swiss Reformed theologian of the

eighteenth century:

It must not be supposed that what is said in this chapter relates only

to the maxims and duties of running a household. It is religion

which enjoins on women these very duties, and the qualities which

Solomon praises in the persons of this sex are those which recom-

­mend them in God’s eyes.27

In other words, the good management of a household is itself a

religious duty by which women please God.

      The same point is made by Abraham Kuyper, the leader of Dutch    

Neocalvinism, in his discussion of the Song:

In the beautiful song in which Lemuel drew for his son the picture of         

the virtuous woman, there is almost no mention of the quiet, inner 

virtues of this woman. To be sure, it does say that she “feareth the  

Lord,” but this too is understood of the outside, not the inside. A

woman who demonstrates in her home management that she does not       

pursue vanity but fears the Lord, she shall be praised.28          

Here the woman’s household activities are seen, not as something

opposed to, or even distinct from, her fear of the Lord, but rather as its

external manifestation.

      The exegetes of this tradition are quite conscious of bringing a       

distinct perspective to bear on the interpretation of the Song, especially          

as regards the value and status of “natural” life. The English Puritan      

Thomas Cartwright, for example, in his influential seventeenth-cen-

tury commentary on the book of Proverbs, after pointing out that the   


        27See La Sainte Bible . . . avec Les I’.Thuveaux Argumens et les Nouvelles R~flexions . par J.

F. Ostervald (Amsterdam: F. Bernard et Herman, 1724). p. 543: “II ne faut pas croire que ce

qui est dit dans ce Chapitre, ne sojent que des maximes et des devoirs d’Oeconomie. La

Religion impose aux femmes ces m~mes devoirs; et les qualitez que Salomon loue dans

les personnes de ce Sexe, sont celles qui les rendent recommandables devant Dieu.”

        28A. Kuyper, Als gi] in uw huis zit (Amsterdam: Hoeveker en Wormser, 1899), p. 66: “In

den schoonen zang toch, waarin Lemuel voor zijn zoon het beeld der deugdelijke

huisvrouw uitteekende, staat over de stille zielsdeugden van deze vrouw bijna niets. Er

staat weldat ze den Heere vreest,’ maar ook dit wordt niet van den binnenkant, maar

van den buitenkant genomen. Fen vrouw die in haar huishouding toont, niet de ijdelheid

na te jagen, maar den Heere te vreezen, zal geprezen worden

          NATURE AND GRACE IN PROVERBS 31:10-31                   163


Valiant Woman is pictured at 31:19 as personally engaged in the lowly

task of spinning, adds the comment:

This passage must be given careful attention in order to establish us

more firmly in the common duties of this life as duties pleasing to

God, against the Anabaptists, who judge them to be too lowly to be

engaged in by Christians, and against the Papists, who, although

they do not condemn this kind of work, nevertheless, in that they

exalt so highly the works of their own devising belonging to their

innovations, which have never been approved by the Holy Spirit,

slacken the hands of godly women.29

The polemic against the Anabaptists and the Roman Catholics is here

directed at their depreciation of the communia huius vitae officia, that is,

the everyday tasks of natural life, such as the humble work of spinning

thread. Cartwright clearly distinguishes the radical perspective of the

Anabaptists (Paradigm 1) from the more moderate one of the Roman

Catholics (Paradigm 2). He does not mention the third worldview,

probably because in the Reformation Lutherans and Calvinists made

common cause against what they perceived as the downgrading of the

intrinsic creational goodness of natural life on the part of Anabaptist

and Catholic writers.

      It would be a great mistake, however, to suppose that the type of

worldview reflected in the interpretation of the Song of the Valiant

Woman is simply a reflex of an exegete's ecclesiastical affiliation. To be

sure, this does largely seem to be the case in the time of the Reforma-

tion and the three centuries which followed it, but there is no such neat

correlation between worldview and confessional tradition in the last

hundred years or so. Increasingly, traditional paradigms relating

nature and grace are transdenominational, no doubt under the influ-

ence of the rise of critical scholarship and the ecumenical movement.

This is not to say, however, that the basic worldview paradigms no

longer playa decisive role; instead they show up in less predictable


      Linked to this weakening in the correlation of worldview and eccle-

communion is another trend that can be observed in the last

century of interpretation of Proverbs 31:10-31. Although, as we have


29Thomas Cartwright, Commentarii succincti et dilucidi in Proverbia Salomon is (Amster-

dam: Laurentius, 1638), col. 1318: "Hic locus observandus est ad nos in communibus

hujus vitae officiis, tanquam Deo gratis confirmandum, contra Anabaptistas, qui abjec-

esse statuunt, quam ut christiani se in lis exerceant, et Pontificios, qui, tametsi

opera non damnent, dum tamen commentitia suarum novarum opera nus-

a Spiritu Sancto probata tantopere efferunt, manus piarum foeminarum re-



164                       CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


seen, Paradigms 1 and 2 are still very much alive in scholarly interpreta-

tion, and though Paradigm 3 is probably still operative in many devo-

tional commentaries, there does seem to be a movement away from

these on the part of the majority of biblical scholars.

      This is evidenced by a kind of ecumenical convergence toward

Paradigm 4 in modern interpretations of Proverbs 31:10-31. This grow-

ing consensus finds expression in two interrelated themes which have

been repatedly emphasized by exegetes of the Song since the late

nineteenth century. The first theme is that all the Valiant Woman's

actions are rooted in (or even constitute) her fear of the Lord; the

second is that she represents the concrete embodiment of that wisdom

whose beginning is the fear of the Lord.

      As an example of the first theme we can quote Franz Delitzsch, the

great Lutheran exegete of the nineteenth century. In his commentary

on the Song he writes:

the poet. ..refers back all these virtues and accomplishments of

hers to the fear of God as to their root.30

This is an emphasis which we find repeated in such Old Testament

scholars as Hermann Schultz,31 A. B. Ehrlich,32 B. Gemser,33 W. H.

Gispen, 34 and M. A. Klopfenstein,35 as well as in devotional commen-



        30Franz Oelitzsch, Das Salomonische Spruchbuch (Leipzig: Oorffling und Franke, 1873),

p. 527: "der Dichter fiihrt aIle diese ihre Tugenden und Leistungen auf die Gottesfurcht

als ihre Wurzel zuruck."

        31Hermann Schultz, Alttestamentliche Theologie, Die Offenbarungsreligion auf ihrer

vorchristlichen Entwickelungsstufe, 4th ed. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1889),

p. 196: "Prov. 31:10-31 shows us the exemplary housewife, and looks upon such a faithful,

fulfillment of duty as fear of the Lord (30)." This statement is made under the general

heading "The root of all morality is fear of the Lord." ; ..

        32Arnold B. Ehrlich, Randglossen zur Hebräischen Bibel, fünfter Band (Leipzig: Hinrichs,

1912), p. 179: "Our heroine's fear of the Lord consists chiefly in the fact that she frees her

husband from all the cares of life."

        33B. Gemser, De Spreuken van Saloma, tekst en uitleg, 2 vols. (Groningen/Den Haag:

Wolters, 1929-31), vol. 2, p. 50: ". ..he looks upon the fear of the Lord as the foundation

and summary of all virtues" (on 31:30). --'

        34W. H. Gispen, De Spreuken van Saloma, Korte Verklaring, 2 vols. (Kampen: Kok,

1952-54), vol. 2, p. 350: "Also the pluckiness [flinkheid] celebrated in this poem is rooted in

the fear of the Lord" (on 31:30).

        35M. A. Klopfenstein, Die Lüge nach dem Alten Testament (Zurich: Gorthel£ 1964), p.174:

". ..not her charm and beauty, but her fear of the Lord, from which all the acclaimed

virtues must spring as from their root, if they are to be true virtues" (on Provo 31:30).

        36See the Stuttgarter Jubiläumsbibel (Stuttgart: Württembergische Bibelanstalt, 1953)

onProv. 31:30: "Such a woman, whose domestic excellence and virtue is rooted in the fear of

the Lord. ..."

NATURE AND GRACE IN PROVERBS 31:10-31                   165


      The second theme is that of the Valiant Woman as the personification

of Wisdom-not in an allegorical sense, but in the sense of an earthly

embodiment of what it means 10 be wise. We find this interpretation

expressed, for example, in the commentary of G. Currie Martin, who

writes that the Song was probably added to Proverbs because “it

embodied some of the ideals of practical wisdom that had been already

inculcated. 1137 This theme is echoed in a number of subsequent com-

mentators of various confessional allegiances. These include A. Mac-

Laren,38 A. Barucq,39 B. Lang,40 P. E. Bonnard,41 and H. Schüngel-


      The two themes we have discussed come together in a summary

statement by Helmer Ringgren in his commentary on the Song. Hav-

ing pointed out how highly the poet prizes the value of a good house-

wife, he writes:

This comports well with the general theme of Proverbs, for wisdom

.in the broad sense of the word is precisely all that enables a person to

succeed in life. The excellent housewife, too, stands as an example of

such wisdom. And just as wisdom and fear of the Lord were one in

the eyes of the collectors of Proverbs, so also the virtues of the good

housewife have their roots in her fear of the Lord.43

In this view, the “fear of the Lord” of verse 30 is both the root of the

Valiant Woman's actions and the "beginning" of the wisdom which


        37G. Currie Martin, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, The New Century Bible

(New York/Edinburgh: H. Frowde, 1908), p. 12.

        38Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, vol. 3: II Kings-Ecclesiastes (Grand

Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1942), p. 294.

        39Andre Barucq, "Proverbes, Livre des," in Dictionnaire de fa Bible, Supplement, Tome

huitieme (Paris: Letouzey et Ane, 1972), cols. 1466 and 1468.

        40Bemard Lang, Anweisungen gegen die Torheit, Sprichwörter-Jesus Sirach (Stuttgart: KBW

Verlag, 1973), pp. 52-53.

        41P. E. Bonnard, "De la Sagesse personnifiée dans r Ancien Testament ala Sagesse en

personne dans Ie Nouveau," in M. Gilbert, ed., La Sagesse de l' Ancien Testament (Louvain:

Duculot, 1979), pp. 127-128.

        42Helen Schüngel-Straumann, "Die wahle Frau," in Christ in der Gegenwart 33


       43Helmer Ringgren, Sprüche, Das Alte Testament Deutsch, 16/1 (Göttingen: Van- "

denhoeck und Ruprecht, 1962), p. U1: "Das passt gut zum allgemeinen Thema der

Spriiche, denn Weisheit im weiteren Sinne des wortes ist eben alles was den Menschen

Zum Erfolg im Leben befähigt. Als ein Beispiel solcher Weisheit steht auch die tiichtige

Hausfrau da. Und ebenso wie Weisheit und Gottesfurcht den Sammlem der Spriiche

eins sind, so haben auch die Tugenden del guten Hausfrau ihre Wurzeln in ihrer


166                       CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


they exemplify. In other words, her praiseworthy deeds in home and

community flow from her religious confession and allow no opposition

or dichotomy between the secular and the sacred, between nature and

grace. 44

      I conclude by observing that the main thesis, the influence of world-

view on (the history of) exegesis, can be effectively illustrated in the

case of Proverbs 31:10-31. I do not claim that worldview is

decisive in questions of interpretation, nor that other factors do not

a crucial role. But at least in the selected test case-and

elsewhere--the dimension of worldview, understood in sense

defined in this essay, is shown to be a significant determinative factor in

biblical interpretation. This is of interest not only to the historian of.

exegesis, but also to the practicing exegete who accepts the Bible's

claims to authority. For my thesis leads to the conclusion that biblical

interpretation can only be properly done if it is informed by a world-

view which is itself biblical, and so provides a legitimate two-way link

between biblical studies and systematic theology.
















        44Cf. also Barucq, or. cit., col. 1467: "The vignette which h.e the b~ttom of

the page is intended as an idealized projection of the blossoming [épanouissement] into the

everyday of a life grounded in a Yahwist wisdom.".  If we delete the words  a life

grounded in," this formulation is freed from all suspicion of a lingering nature-grace



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